I mentioned at the beginning that appearances haven’t changed that much at first glance, but in the case of the 803, that isn’t true. The last example of this model did not have a separate ‘head’, but had the midrange in the same enclosure as three rather than two bass drivers, with only the tweeter pod outside the box. For the new range Bowers & Wilkins have seen fit to make the 803 more like an 802; in fact, it is essentially a compact version of that model with a smaller Turbine head containing a 130mm Continuum mid above two 180mm bass drivers. The 802 on the other hand has a 152mm mid and 203mm bass drivers. The odd thing is that the old 802 Diamond weighed only 10 kilos more than the new 803 D3; the price was very similar, too. The company even claims that the new 803 sounds better than the previous 802, and as I used three generations of that model over many years I can confirm that they aren’t wrong; this thing is a proper ‘OMG’ loudspeaker.
Set up is facilitated by built in rollers that help move the 65 kilo weight of each speaker into place. A set of burly spikes lurk under the plinth and can be screwed down once you have found the optimal position: alternatively leave the spikes locked away and put the speakers on isolation bases for better results.
I’m told that the 803 D3s sound best when bi-wired, but as I have just the one set of Townshend Isolda DCT speaker cable, the supplied bridging cables were connected to get signal to both halves of the crossover; at least they’re not bars or plates. From there on in, these speakers were a revelation: all that R&D work has resulted in a supremely articulate and transparent loudspeaker that exposed unexpected details on virtually everything I played. Steve Pearce from Bowers & Wilkins’ R&D team, who brought the 803s over, likes to play loud – rather louder than me – but it was thrilling to hear such a visceral and at the same time clean sound. The low end coming off of an NAP 250 DR was almost physical. I discovered later that more could be achieved with more power, but the result with only 80 Watts was still an experience. Several albums demanded to be played, including one from Sonny Boy Williamson whose voice, blues harp, and finger clicks were delivered with a realism that belied the age of the recording. It has to be said that this speaker delivers on a visceral level with uncanny calm; that is, they produce a very strong, wide bandwidth sound but stop and start as effortlessly as a compact monitor. Very few speakers can reproduce the power of the double bass on Patricia Barber’s ‘Company’ [Modern Cool, Premonition]without blurring the finger work. You need a grippy amplifier to achieve this but I have one of those in the ATC P1.
I didn’t mention it before but this is a ported speaker; the port points down at the base so you don’t see it and it’s so well tuned that you don’t hear it either. As a long time transmission line user, I have grown sensitized to port character, but couldn’t detect any extra bloom to the bass with the 803 D3. What was easy to hear is supremely articulate, precise, and yet musically fluent sound quality with a range of sources and amplifiers, but this level of transparency means that the less able partnering equipment is very easy to identify. It made abundantly clear that networked digital sources are more musically engaging than USB connected ones for instance, the Primare PRE60 reviewed last month proving its worth with ease in this respect. Herbie Hancock’s version of ‘Ain’t Necessarily So’ [Gershwin’s World, Verve] sounded fabulously open, the sound totally escapes the cabinets and oozes tonal depth across the board while remaining taut and coherent. It’s rare to find a speaker that does bass extension, tonal richness and finesse alongside great timing but the 803 is such a speaker. This comes down to an uncanny degree of low level resolution, a result of all the work that was done to stop the cabinet and drive units from vibrating and masking the signal.
Music reproduction is a forgiving science, even a crude loudspeaker will sound tolerable with most material at average listening levels because the distortions are usually harmonious, meaning they blend in with the signal. But, at the same time very few loudspeakers fool you into thinking that you are hearing the real thing; by reducing the sort of colorations that the majority of loudspeakers add to the sound Bowers & Wilkins has succeeded in making a speaker that gets very close. You need a great recording and replay chain for this to work of course, one that eschews character for neutrality, and does equally as much to keep noise to a minimum, but these exist and this speaker will tell you which ones are doing it the best. I have banged on about the Townshend Allegri passive controller before because I can’t find a better preamplifier and this was proved by comparing it with alternatives through this speaker and confirmed when I discovered that they use the same thing at Bowers & Wilkins R&D dept.